Karen and I were looking over the blogs we’ve written and realized we’ve never written about grandparenting. So I decided to take a first stab at the topic. It felt overwhelming—like I’d be writing a dissertation in order to say all that comes up for me. I remembered my mother, who wanted to be a grandmother, even though motherhood had not been easy for her. And Gary Stout, who, when told by the doctor that he had 6-18 months to live said, “Now I’m glad I have grandchildren.” His daughter’s pregnancies were not planned and came while they were both getting a foothold on being adults. He was not happy at the time.
Then, the Sunday before Christmas, sitting in church, the topic came back to me again. A woman was reading the Christmas story to some children, and I found myself asking, “I wonder if Jesus had grandparents.” (I suspect some of you know the answer to this.) Specifically, I was thinking about a grandmother, since I’m a woman. I do not know the answer to this question, but it made me recall the birth of my first grandchild, Peter, in 1999.
When my son, Walter, announced to me that he and his wife, Elizabeth, were expecting, I was excited, but more for them than for me. I was busy trying to restart my life after Gary’s death. I cheered them on through the pregnancy, but the prospect of becoming a grandmother barely entered my consciousness.
Walter and Elizabeth were adamant about experiencing Peter’s birth privately, as a couple. They made it clear to their large family that they didn’t want anyone with them during the birth, and they especially didn’t want a waiting room of relatives hanging outside, following every development. We respected that. We didn’t even ask for a call when they left for the hospital. And we knew they would not call until it was over.
The call came on a warm July evening. I had just laid down for bed, window open, enjoying the night breeze and sounds of the city. The phone interrupted my drift into sleep.
“Mom, he’s here. Peter’s born,” Walter’s sobs seemed to pour through the phone. “It was so unbelievable. He’s wonderful.”
“Congratulations new dad,” I said, “Pretty terrific, isn’t it?” I could imagine their night.
“Please come, please. You have to see him.” Now he was openly crying—the unflappable Walter was crying harder than his newborn son.
When your son implores you to come, you take off your pajamas, get dressed and drive to the hospital. They were in Abbott Northwestern Hospital. I’d last been there the day before Gary died. The halls seemed to squeeze the breath out of me, but I found the maternity ward.
And there he was, Peter, my first grandchild red and raw, wrapped in a hospital blanket, looking around at his new home and his new daddy.
“Do you want to hold him?” Walter asked.
I didn’t need to answer. My arms opened, and Walter laid Peter in them. I looked down into the stone blue eyes and met my first grandson. The room and voices seemed to fade. We simply stared at each other. “Hello,” I said. “I’m your grandmother.” And he just kept staring. I could not look away, bound by a love I’d forgotten I could feel welling into me. Here was a new soul ready for the journey. I gave him my promise to always be there for him.
That was 23 years ago. Peter is now a young adult working at his first job in Washington DC. I’ve been there through most of his journey thus far. That honor, that privilege, that gift makes me think of my own grandmothers, both of whom I never met. Ruth, my mother’s mother, died in childbirth at the age of 22. My mother was three, with a new baby brother but no mother. My father’s mother, Martha, died in 1930, at the age of 51. My father was thirteen years old. Neither of these women had the chance to be a grandmother.
When I had my own children I was in my twenties. They were a precious responsibility, and much as my heart overflowed with love, there was always that looming responsibility to parent well and provide for them. But I am now older. I realize that not everyone gets the gift of grandchildren. I know what a gift a child is. I know, too, that a grandmother is another sort of gift, since I never really had one. These realizations make me want to bring joy and love into every moment I spend with my grandchildren. These realizations make me feel blessed.